"And, it is in the humble opinion of this narrator
that strange things happen all the time.
And so it goes and so it goes and the book says,
We may be through with the past,
but the past ain't through with us."
Magnolia is a crazed film, a movie like no other, a genius work that refuses to explain itself -- but needs no explanation. It is like a human-scaled version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, equally as epic and exploratory, and filled with grand ambition to look at the way we are, the way we behave, the way we love and hate and fear and worry, and to marvel at what it sees.
Its director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has said, "Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make," and he's right, because Magnolia is one of the best American movies ever made. Magnolia revels in the pure joy of being a movie, of making impossible shots and impossible things happen, of layering story and sound and music and happenstance in such extraordinary ways that even though it is a film about a very specific time and place, it feels timeless and universal.
The time and place is just before the turn of the century in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The Valley is a concrete jigsaw puzzle of strip malls and apartment buildings, dotted here and there by movie and TV studios; it is not a glamorous place, but it is the place where glamour is made by working-class people who are less concerned with appearances than their tonier neighbors "over the hill."
It's Anderson's cinematic Yoknapatawpha County, a microcosm of all humanity, which in Magnolia is overcome by a certain wary anxiousness, maybe about the coming 21st century, maybe about the seemingly never-ending rain that won't stop falling in L.A., maybe just because their lives are falling apart -- which, Magnolia observes, is what happens to lives.
Magnolia begins with a fast and ferocious opening that explores the seeming impossibility of chance in life. Its vignettes aren't connected to the rest of the movie except in the message: Nothing happens by chance, except, perhaps, everything. As Magnolia continues, its seemingly random characters also seem disconnected, until they begin to overlap, connect, intersect and collide, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Though few of them are alone, they are all lonely, and most of them are consumed by their pasts.
There's a prodigious little boy (Jeremy Blackman), a contestant on a popular quiz show, who doesn't want to play the game anymore. There's the host of the quiz show (Philip Baker Hall), who finds out he's dying of cancer and tries to make amends to the daughter (Melora Walters) and wife (Melinda Dillon), whose lives he has harmed. There's the producer of the quiz show (Jason Robards), much further along in the process of dying, his caretaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who is being driven to a nervous breakdown because she's surrounded by death and regret. And there's the producer's son, a sleaze-bucket sexual self-help guru (Tom Cruise), whose rage at the way he has been treated by life is channeled into a crazed public persona.
All of them find ways to sideswipe, and sometimes collide head-on with, each other, joined by a sweet-hearted police officer (John C. Reilly) who isn't very good at his job, and a has-been quiz-show contestant (William H. Macy).
Magnolia is a sprawling film, but Anderson brings it all together masterfully, with camera work and editing that are dizzying and dazzling. Anderson is fearless behind the camera, and his daring extends to his actors, who are unapologetically emotional and uniformly astonishing.
Its concerns for traditional story cower in comparison to its concerns for extreme emotion, Magnolia bears less resemblance to a standard film than to an opera -- virtually every moment is filled with music (the propulsive score by Jon Brion adds tremendously to the jittery anxiousness and luxuriant emotion). Magnolia is driven more by visual style and thematic cohesiveness than by a linear plot. When it needs to pause to emphasize an emotion or a specific story beat, the camera turns to a particular character and lets the moment happen; it's like a cinematic aria, spoken rather than sung, indulging in its splendid actors.
It's not always simply spoken, though. In one astonishing scene that makes even jaded movie viewers sit up and take notice, all of the major characters break into the same song as they listen in on the radio, underscoring the ways in which everyone is connected -- practically and emotionally -- in ways that might surprise even them.
The opera comparison persists throughout Magnolia, because the final act of this long, absorbing movie heads into richly theatrical, emotionally tricky territory. Just as every one of the characters reaches an existential tipping point, just as each of these fragile people is about to shatter, something extraordinary happens.
This being L.A., Magnolia could have easily and believably brought in a fire, a mudslide or (like its cinematic cousin) a grand earthquake. But Anderson refuses to do anything easily -- and this cataclysm is so entirely unexpected that it's not surprising to know that many first-time viewers react to it with something less than appreciation. It is a bizarre occurrence, one that has never been seen on film before and one that's unlikely ever to be put on film again.
It is so wildly weird that it's perfect. It's a reminder of the kind of coincidence and impossibility chronicled in the film's opening moments, the extreme unpredictability of life. It is as nonsensical yet plausible as, say, a gunman walking into a theater and shooting people, or as two jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center. Of course, when Magnolia was made, none of those things had yet happened -- but in the wake of those real-life insanities, Magnolia has become a film I've turned to time and again to bring some sense of order to a chaotic world.
I've watched all 3 hours, 8 minutes of it tonight, the night after Paris was attacked.
In the past 24 hours, I've heard the word "senseless" used over and over to describe those attacks. But what in life is sensible?
How is it we can so regularly fail to see the way our lives can fall apart at any moment, how one word from another person, one look, one act of kindness or cruelty, can change everything? How can we believe we have control when things that defy plausibility happen with astonishing regularity?
One one hand, they may not be as grotesquely extreme as the incident that closes out Magnolia -- but, on the other, in their own devastating ways, they are even more unbelievable.
Yes, strange things happen all the time. And, yes, as the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us. So maybe the best anyone can do is just to find someone else, someone equally as imperfect and difficult and scared, who will experience those things with us. Magnolia discovers that deep in the San Fernando Valley, during rain-soaked days and anxious nights, that, in the end, that's all anyone really wants, or even needs: To get through the impossible randomness of life, to hope it doesn't overwhelm is, and to wait for the rain to clear.